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England's World Cup shows why Big Ten fans should root for Ed O'Bannon

The Big Ten has the advantage of being rich and the disadvantage of lacking lacking adequate supplies of local talent. Fans of the conference should look across the pond to see a world in which teams can use the former to trump the latter.

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Ronald Martinez

If you blinked, you might have missed England's participation in the World Cup. England lost its first two matches to Italy and Uruguay, which rendered their third match against Costa Rica irrelevant.

If you're new to soccer, then you might have asked yourself, "how is it that England got sent home so quickly?" After all, the club-level English Premier League is one of the best in the world. England have all of the prerequisites to be an international soccer power: a large population that cares about the sport, a sizable economy, and a democratic political system. Additionally, the English claim to have invented the modern game, so they ought to have a leg up based on tradition.

And yet England's national-level tradition has been early exits. Take it away, Nick Hornby:

The truly remarkable thing about England's two defeats to Italy and Uruguay is that they took the nation by surprise. We are always taken by surprise, every time we are sent packing early; and we are sent packing early just about every time the World Cup is played outside England. [...]

Even those who try to maintain cynicism about the England national team's chances might be astonished by some of the facts thrown up by an examination of our World Cup record. We have won precisely five knockout games in any World Cup played outside our own country. [...] A 1-0 win over Ecuador in 2006 was our last victory outside the group stage.

So if we assume that England's international struggles are the result of the country not producing as many top players as its world rivals, how it is that the Premier League is so good?

Free market capitalism. English teams hold six of the top 14 spots in Deloitte's rankings of clubs by revenue. The clubs in the league generate almost 50 percent more revenue than the next-closest league and pay twice as much in wages.

Given the link between wages and wins, it's fairly clear that Premier League teams overcome the dearth of domestic talent by buying foreign talent. The Premier League is dominated by foreign players, as a recent study by the BBC found that domestic players accounted for only 32.3 percent of minutes played in the EPL, as compared to 45.4 and more in other top leagues.

So in European soccer, you have:

  1. A league full of teams that are great at generating revenue by virtue of tradition, fan interest, and being located in a wealthy region.
  2. Teams that face the headwind of their region being poor at generating talent.
  3. Teams that get around that disadvantage by flexing their financial muscle to import players from other regions, thereby strengthening their own league and weakening the teams in the regions from which they recruit.
  4. A free market system in which players can be attracted to move between regions by the lure of better pay.

Does this sound like a path forward for the Big Ten?

Like the English Premier League, the Big Ten is great at revenue generation. According to USA Today, the conference boasts seven of the top 17 teams at bringing in revenue. Big Ten teams are rich primarily because they have fans that care. If we use attendance as a proxy for fan interest, the aforementioned seven Big Ten programs again occupy seven of the top 25 spots in terms of attendance.

If college football results were dictated by dollars, then the Big Ten would be vying with the SEC for the title of best conference in the country.  But how many times in the recent past has the Big Ten placed seven teams in the on-field rankings like it does in revenue and attendance? Last year, the Big Ten had three teams in the final Top 25 AP Poll -- the SEC had four in the top seven. The Big Ten hasn't had more than four since 2003, when it had five. The league last matched its revenue level with seven teams in 1999.

When people discuss the relative lack of success of Big Ten teams, the lack of talent in the region inevitably arises as an explanation. Whether one attributes that phenomenon to population movement, poor climate, cultural factors that reduce interest in high school football, or any other pet theory, it's clear that Big Ten teams -- like English Premier League teams -- face the dilemma of trying to compete with other leagues that have more local talent.

So why can't the Big Ten mimic the Premier League and import that talent? Because college football, unlike European soccer, does not function as a free market.

When Chelsea wanted to acquire the services of Eden Hazard, a super-talented Belgian prospect playing for Lille in the French Ligue 1, they just bought him for a transfer fee of £32 million.

But when Michigan wanted to acquire the services of Josh Rosen, a top pro-style quarterback prospect in the 2015 class, they could not offer him anything other than a scholarship. Rosen ended up picking UCLA.  Michigan football generates over three times as much revenue as UCLA and roughly 10 times as much profit. It's not hard to imagine that Michigan would have won a bidding war for Rosen, a blue-chip prospect outside of the Wolverines' region. (It's also not hard to imagine that Rosen would have liked that bidding war, but that's a separate question.)

And that's where the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit comes into play. O'Bannon isn't seeking to eradicate the NCAA's compensation cap, like Jeffrey Kessler is, so a favorable verdict from Judge Wilken would not produce a free market environment like the one that allows Chelsea to pay top dollar for players from other countries.

However, by allowing players to profit from their own image rights, the trial's eventual final verdict could produce an environment in which players for football programs with greater fan interest will be able to make more money. For example, once players are permitted to endorse products, then it stands to reason that a player for Penn State or Nebraska will make more money than a player for UCLA or Baylor, because the former programs have massive fan bases.

It is hard to conceive of a scenario in which the Big Ten is going to end up ahead of the SEC for any appreciable period of time, because SEC programs have both proximity to talent and significant financial resources. However, Big Ten programs do make more money collectively than the programs of the ACC, Big 12, and Pac-12. In a free market, the Big Ten would be able to utilize that comparative advantage directly by paying for players.

In the current environment, the Big Ten can only use the advantage indirectly by paying more for facilities and coaches. In short, a freer market would be to the Big Ten's benefit.

So the obvious question arises: why is the Big Ten so opposed to a change that would benefit it on the field?